JANE AUSTEN’S ENGLAND (G)


This essay is number seven in a series of twelve, about places associated with Jane Austen, although it does not claim to be a comprehensive gazetteer.

G. RETURN TO HAMPSHIRE

Jane Austen was born in rural Hampshire, in the village of Steventon, and spent the first twenty-five years of her life there (Essay A). Following her father’s retirement from the position of Rector in 1800, the family moved from Steventon to Bath. Jane was a dutiful daughter and accepted the move despite her grave misgivings. The family, Jane, her widowed mother, and sister Cassandra, had a rather nomadic existence after her father’s death n 1805, as they travelled around England on extended visits to relations.


(i) Portsmouth and Southampton

The map (2) is based on the twentieth century geography, and shows the two biggest towns, Portsmouth and Southampton as large grey areas of modern residential, commercial and industrial development. In Jane Austen’s day, there was a much greater contrast between the two towns. Portsmouth, with its great naval dockyard, was a scene of bustle and continual activity, as food and drink; together with equipment and materials; were taken aboard the great warships from the ships’ chandlers and provision merchants of the town.


The scene is admirably captured in the cartoon (3), by Thomas Rowlandson, a painter, portraitist and caricaturist, (Ref B) who was a contemporary of Jane Austen. As she mocked Georgian social manners in novels, he mocked it in pictures. As one art form influences another, so Rowlandson’s cartoon inspired the English composer, William Walton, (1902-1983) to write, in 1925, a short musical sketch, entitled, “Portsmouth Point”. It was the music which I encountered first, and some time later I saw the print.

Apparently, in the ships’ logs (formal accounts of the voyages) Portsmouth Point was abbreviated to “Po’m. P.” and in speech became “Pompey”, the sailors’ nickname for the naval base, and then the town, from the eighteenth into the twentieth century. (Ref C)


In Jane Austen’s time, Southampton was simply a small port at the far end of Southampton Water (2). It had been an important place in medieval times, and parts of its city walls and medieval buildings survive to the present day (4). All this changed in the middle of the 19C with the construction of large, steel, steam driven sea-going vessels, capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a week or less. By the 20C, a deep-water port, close enough to London, was needed and Southampton fitted the bill. Wealthy tourists and businessmen could cross the ocean between the USA and Britain in three days, and be in London, by train, in less than two hours after leaving Southampton.

Maggie Lane (Ref D) explains how Jane Austen felt about Southampton, “From the autumn of 1806 to the spring of 1809 Jane Austen made her home in Southampton. Here she lived not only with her mother and sister, but with her brother Frank, and his new wife, Mary, and with Martha Lloyd, recently rendered homeless by the death of her mother. The idea was to lessen all household expenses by sharing them, and to provide companionship for Mary when her husband, (a Royal Navy officer), was away at sea.

Jane already knew Southampton, from having been briefly at school there; that she greatly preferred it to Bath is evident – and not hard to explain. It was in her home county, and on the coast – two very powerful recommendations.

Its pretensions to fashion were slight, compared with those of Bath, and its air, with sea breezes, agreed with her better. .


Within a compact area, the city was intensely built up, with a network of narrow medieval streets, and tall overhanging buildings (5), but there was little sense of confinement, with the sea dancing virtually on three sides, and the countryside immediately beyond the ancient city walls. Best of all, perhaps, in Southampton the Austens were able once again to have a garden, essential to Jane’s well-being.” (Ref D)


While Jane and her family were in Southampton, they made excursions to nearby historic buildings like Netley Abbey (6), or Beaulieu Abbey, and as far afield as the Isle of Wight (7) (see map 2)


Notwithstanding Jane’s excursions, the sea breezes, and the garden, Maggie Lane suggests that she was heartsick to live in real countryside again. Jane’s novel, “Mansfield Park” is partly set in Portsmouth, and the heroine, Fanny Price, moans unhappily that, ‘There was neither health, nor gaiety in sunshine in a town.’ She speaks of missing the awakening of spring, the earliest flowers, and the opening of the leaves. “Fanny’s longings for the country surely echo her creator’s own.” (Ref D)

(ii) Chawton Cottage

The village of Chawton is about a mile south of the small market town of Alton, in Hampshire, and a mere thirteen miles (20 Km) south-east of Jane Austen’s birthplace in the village of Steventon.

Maggie Lane contends that, “As a woman, and as a writer, Jane Austen could find complete fulfilment only in the country. It offered her both ‘animation’ and repose. Her joy on finding, towards the close of 1808, that circumstances were once more to place her in a small Hampshire village, was immense. Among other effects it produced an immediate revival of interest in her three unpublished novels. Her creative powers were reawakened, never to fail her again.” (Ref D)


“Chawton Cottage belonged to her brother Edward, who had inherited the estates of Steventon and Chawton, in addition to that of Godmersham. Both Hampshire manor houses were let to tenants, but the cottage occupied by his steward in the village of Chawton became available, and it was this which he offered now to his mother and sisters.

They did not ask to see it before accepting, so confident were they that it would suit them, and that they would be happy there. They had been thinking of leaving Southampton anyway. The exigencies of Frank’s profession made it often more convenient for his wife to take lodgings elsewhere – we hear of the couple at Portsmouth, Yarmouth, Deal and Cowes – and a smaller house became desirable to the others.


They approached their new home through the vale between Farnham and Alton, which Arthur Young, the eighteenth century traveller and agricultural writer, called ‘the finest ten miles in England’. Jane was indeed come to a part of the world which those who knew intimately, loved deeply. Three and a half miles south lay Selborne; (1) Gilbert White’s description of the country around his beloved parish, ‘an assemblage of hill, dale, woodlands, heath and water’, serves to indicate the nature of the scenery on that side of Chawton.” (Ref D) The illustration at the head of this essay (1) shows Selborne, nestled in its valley, among woods and fields, seen from a “hanger” or high wood, “hanging” on the top of a hill.

The word “cottage” suggests a small or modest house, but Chawton Cottage is really a substantial building, with six bedrooms, and two garret chambers in the roof-space. It is typical of houses in that part of England; (10) a timber frame of oak, readily available from the hardwood forests of the region, and which could have been made at any time between 1400 and 1700. Only carbon-dating could reveal its true age, because regional vernacular buildings are notoriously difficult to date accurately on stylistic grounds.


In medieval times, the walling between the timbers would have been made of lath and plaster. In later, more prosperous times, this would have been replaced by brick infill, as in illustration 10. People were as keen on “home improvements” then as they are today, and by the eighteenth century a timber frame building was seen as hopelessly old-fashioned. A simple but rather expensive solution was to clad the whole building in bricks to make it more “modern”. If money was a problem, only the front and sides facing the road, would have been brick clad, leaving the back in its “unreformed” medieval state.

This was the solution adopted at Chawton Cottage. Facing the road, are typical eighteenth century long sash windows, in a brick frontage, (9) while at the back were casement windows, and a collection of outbuildings, including a bake-house cum wash-house (11).


In our earlier visits to Chawton Cottage, the atmosphere was very much that of a home, and Jane Austen might have left only a couple of weeks ago. On subsequent visits, there has been such a enthusiasm to inform and educate the ignorant, like myself, that it is now more of a museum, and the homely quality has gone out of it.

(iii) Chawton House

While Jane, her mother and sister Cassandra, flourished at Chawton Cottage, her brother Edward, who had been adopted as an adult, to be the son and heir of the Knight family, resided close by at Chawton House. This was by far the grandest building in the village, approached by a long straight drive (12), giving a tantalizing view of the frontage. It is likely that Jane, her mother and sister were regular visitors.


While staying in Winchester during October, 2009, we visited Chawton Cottage on a Monday, and I noted that Chawton House was open to the public only on Tuesday afternoons, if booked in advance. The next day found us motoring gently down the long straight drive to the beautiful old house (13). It turned out that only two people had booked to see the house, so we had a private guided tour, along with an additional “makee-learn” guide.


The house is beautiful inside, and is now a Library of national significance, housing “The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600-1830″. I am sure that Jane Austen would have been delighted with this development. I see now that the house and gardens are open every afternoon in the summer months, so perhaps the exclusive tour we enjoyed is much rarer. After the house tour, we wandered round the very varied and interesting gardens (14). Readers wanting more information should consult Reference I, which gives full details of visiting times and dates.


“The Chawton years were the settled, fulfilling, productive years, but the travels which had preceded them were not wasted. All that she had seen and read; all that she had learnt to feel for the English landscape, was there for her to draw on, now that she had found the right conditions in which to exercise her genius.” (Ref D)

SERIES TO BE CONTINUED

REFERENCES

A. “Explore Britain’s Villages”, by Susan Gordon, AA, 1993

B. “Dictionary of National Biography”, Wordsworth, 1994

C. “Portsmouth Point”, Wikipedia article

D. “Jane Austen’s England”, by Maggie Lane, Robert Hale Ltd, 1986

E. “Abbeys and Monasteries”, by Derry Brabbs, Weidenfeld, 1999

F. “Britain from the Air”, by Michael Swift and George Grant, PRC, 2000

G. “Chawton village”, Wikipedia article

H. “Village Buildings of Britain” by Matthew Rice, Little, Brown, 1992

I. “Chawton House” Wikipedia article

J. “Jane Austen” Wikipedia article

ILLUSTRATIONS

1. The village of Selborne in Hampshire, home of the naturalist, Gilbert White (Ref A)

2. Hampshire, showing places associated with Jane Austen (Author)

3. “Portsmouth Point”, a cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson, (1756-1827) (Ref C)

4. Bargate was a main entry port through the medieval walls into Southampton (Google images)

5. The Tudor House in Southampton, an “overhanging building” (Google images)

6. Netley Abbey, founded in 1239 as a Cistercian house, by Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester (Ref E)

7. The Needles, the most westerly point of the Isle of Wight (Ref F)

8. St Nicholas Church, in the village of Chawton, Hampshire (Ref G)

9. “Chawton Cottage”, once the home of Jane Austen, an old timber-frame house, long since clad in red brick (Author)

10. Typical timber frame building with brick infill, Wessex region (Ref H)

11. The outbuildings at the rear of Chawton Cottage (Author)

12. The gates and drive to Chawton House (Author)

13. Chawton House Library, Chawton, Hampshire (Author)

14. Decorative iron gates to the Walled Garden of Chawton House (Author)

SERIES SUMMARY

CODE

MAIN SUBJECT

OTHER THEMES

A Hampshire Childhood Introduction-Reminders of the Past
B Kent Country Houses “Improvements”, and Garden Design
C City Elegance History of Bath, Neo-Classical Architecture
D Coastal Scenes Sea Drinking and Sea Bathing
E The Bristol Avon
F The Warwickshire Avon and the Cotswolds Adlestrop
G Return to Hampshire Portsmouth Point
H Winchester Days Medicine in the Early Nineteenth Century
I Locations “Sense and Sensibility” The Regency Period
J Locations –”Pride and Prejudice” The Picturesque
K Locations – “Mansfield Park” and “Emma” The Ha-Ha Boundary, “Lovers’ Vows” play
L Locations-“Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” The Gothic Novel, Irish History
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